16 June 2000

Bland Ambition

Richard Ashcroft writes a mean tune, says Tom Cox - but why does he insist on producing them all to death? 

Richard Ashcroft Alone With Everybody (Hut) ** 

Kindred to the hippie but more English, less articulate, less political, more self-serving and better at fighting, the dippie is a breed of musician that has emerged in the last half-decade, slightly confused about his role as the savior of pop, but righteously pissed off with music's spiritual decline. The dippie (Liam Gallagher, Richard Ashcroft, Shack's Mick Head) isn't wet enough to use phrases like "spiritual alignment", but he'll tell us "it's all about the music, man" and use the word "vibe", but only prefixed with "fucking". He believes that pop will get better because it's all he can afford to believe.

We kind of know what he's getting at, but not quite. Ashcroft's songs have always been about things like "feeling it, man" and "searching"; for him, attaching more specific descriptions to The Sun, the Sea or Slide Away (from Verve's 1993 debut LP, A Storm in Heaven) would be akin to trying to re-create a Jackson Pollock by numbers. The image he projects is of a lucky man so far inside the music as to be beyond verbalization, yet who also happens to shuffle languidly out of bed in the morning with the best hair in rock. Hair? Ambition? Soul? A few classic tunes? Ashcroft, standing next to virtually any other radio-assisted British songwriter, appears to have everything we've been waiting for. Yet everything he's done seems ever so slightly watered down: A Storm in Heaven (still his most ambitious work) with the aftertaste of shoegazing; 1995's A Northern Soul, with a pinch of Oasis; 1997's Urban Hymns, with the taste of a band who know a little too much about how you get on the radio in the late 90s.

The most worrying aspect of Alone With Everybody is its odour of self-satisfaction: the partially diluted lyrics ("funny how time flies in the city that never sleeps"), the I'm-a-megastar-now-I-can-do-what-I-want slothfulness (check out the brain-dead Four Tops rip-off on C'mon People), the overproduction, which stops just short of insipid. In a sense, Crazy World and Brave New World are a return to the swimming-in-sound aesthetic of A Storm in Heaven. In another sense, they could have been made by Paul Rodgers or Joe Cocker, or some other hoary old washed-up rocker who isn't 28 and has at least made a couple of classic albums to earn the right to get this mawkish. And what's all this about "the new Glen Campbell"? I've seen more country leanings on an inner-city tower block. The mixing desk is at the root of much of the frustration: Ashcroft's obsession with atmospherics is so ill at ease with his super-smooth, dehumanized equipment that the noises on I Get My Beat or You on My Mind in My Sleep come out comparable to a Maritime Moods therapy tape or a latter-day Yes single.

The relief that arrives with A Song for the Lovers (containing more strings than the Battle of Agincourt, but relatively fuss-free in this context) or the stomping New York, where the sheer pace drowns out the twiddly, gliding bits, is almost embarrassing. These songs are epic on their own; a console the size of Wolverhampton actually makes them less so. You can't help wondering what they might have sounded like purified through the eight-track machine the Beatles used for Sgt Pepper, or another low-rent contraption that would have given Ashcroft the "feel" he's always rooting around for.

Ashcroft has a record within him that demonstrates the uncompromising psychedelic texture of All in the Mind but turns its gaze away from its shoes and towards the stars, like Bittersweet Symphony. Alone With Everybody, however, sounds more like a storm round at Mike Rutherford's house than a storm in heaven. In the same way that Ashcroft's hair looks great until you see a picture of Keith Richards in 1968, Alone With Everybody is refreshing, until you hear Arnold or Delta or another band that makes "big music" with more passion, more fertility, less monotony, less budget. Ironically for a man constantly disgusted with pop's commodification, Ashcroft's status as the Last Great Rock Star is, you feel, a relative thing, fabricated by the short-sighted corporate tastemakers he so despises - those who prefer their spirituality fed to them through a vitality filter.
  • Source: The Guardian, written by Tom Cox